Using the progressive disclosure principle in academic writing


I work a lot with artists and designers. Because I’m a bit of a magpie, I have a habit of collecting – and then using – their principles and approaches. A lot of them are interesting, because they make you – well, they make me – stop and think a bit.  I reckon that visiting concepts out of your usual neighbourhood can be pretty helpful. As is the case here.

This week I’ve gone back to think about the progressive disclosure principle. A term common in design. As the name implies, it’s about the way in which information is presented. The basic point is this – the provision of information needs to be staged in order to prevent information overload. Overload happens when the user/viewer/reader has so much information all at once that they really don’t know what to think/do/believe. A managed flow of information allows the user/viewer/reader to deal only with what is necessary and relevant. Because designers know the progressive disclosure principle, they organise their webpage/book etc so there is step-by-step guidance.

I am sure we can all think of examples of the progressive disclosure principle in action. Thinks of web design interface for instance – those buttons that say click here for more information are a classic PD principled approach to limiting overload. The designer has made sure to support users/viewers/readers to access what they need, when they need it, as well as offering more for those who want it. Hyperlinks forwards and backwards, and new windows that open to reveal more, also offer additional information. But the PD principle means that people who just want the narrative through-line and the bare bones information get it straight away. They can choose not to go further. Not to click or follow the link. Those who like to know all the stuff have the option of following up then and there, or later.

I am equally sure we can all think of times when the progressive disclosure principle wasn’t adhered to – I suppose there must be someone who hasn’t had to struggle with flat-pack instructions that seem to be simultaneously too much and not enough. Those surplus screws… User error you say? Well maybe, but more likely that the right information wasn’t given in the right order in a way that the user/viewer/reader could understand.

Anyone who teaches or writes instructions thinks a lot about progressive disclosure. Or they ought to. What do people need to know first of all and get a grip on before they can go on to the next step? Do they need to know what the point is and how the whole activity proceeds? Or are they happy to have things unfold?

I guess by now you can see how the progressive disclosure principle might be of use in thinking about academic writing and communicating research.

One of the issues that is critical in constructing an academic text is order – what has to come when. What do readers need to know at the start of an academic text? What needs to be discussed in detail before the information is put to use? These questions are really important.

PhDers are often highly vexed about what goes where in their thesis text. Am I talking about my results before I have explained how they are produced? Am I using an idea to explain my results that I ought to have introduced earlier? These are key questions in drafting and also revising a thesis.

The progressive disclosure principle sits behind a supervisor’s suggestion to put the research question or hypothesis early on so the reader/examiner knows what the rest of the text is about. And its the PD principle lurking behind a supervisor comment like – you don’t have to say this all at once. Not the kitchen sink!! And of course the p. disclosure principle is implicit in supervisor feedback that the PhD writer needs to do more signposting of what is to come.

All academic writers have to think about the sequencing of information. We have to think about pacing too – how much time we need to spend with a particular set of “stuff” before moving the reader on. We generally have to consider how to present highly complex ideas without totally confusing our readers. We not only have to think about order and quantity of material but also how to offer nuance and access to further pertinent information .

Of course it is harder in a linear hard copy written text to do the equivalent of click on this button for more information or use this hyperlink to access more detail. The hard copy text traditionally used different tools – we write (see p. x), ( see Appendix z), or we use footnotes or endnotes. Sometimes hard copy academic texts are accompanied by a DVD with instructions given in the relevant place of the text. But these days, with the proliferation of digital PDFs and e-books, including the digital thesis, there may well be hyperlinks added. When this is the case, we can use some of the digital tools available to us to manage progressive disclosure.

There is more opportunity now for academic writers to think like web designers. And because of this, it is perhaps also important for academic writers to understand and name the principles that underpin the design of their/our work.

I don’t know that we academics talk a lot about progressive disclosure as a principle. We work with it all the time. I suspect that our academic writing and supervision practices might benefit from being able to use the terminology of progressive disclosure. It’s a neat encapsulation of something familiar. The word ‘principle’ suggests that there is something common writers need to attend to, it’s not just me/you. But it also suggests an element of choice, it’s a principle, not a rule to be blindly followed. It’s something to think about and apply as it applies. Using the PD term might thus help our writing conversations – and our learning and practices.